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Apr 15, 2016 – For many, the sport of cycling is about winning. For some, however, it is more about enduring. French legend Raymond Poulidor, who turns 80 on April 15, undeniably falls into the later group. Poulidor was never one of the sport’s great winners—he was even a legendary loser—but his 18-year career left an irrefutable imprint on the sport through its courage and determination.
Words and Images by James Startt
For nearly two decades, Poulidor always dreamed of winning the Tour de France. At times he was painfully close. But while he often finished on the podium of the world’s biggest bike race, he never once wore the yellow jersey bestowed on the race leader, not even for a single day. Instead he was the consummate challenger to legendary champions like Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx. And for that he won the hearts of his countrymen.
Post-WWII France, it seemed, was filled with “ists” and “isms.” Existentialists and Nihilists incarnated the angst of post-war society while Socialism and Communism attempted to provide a path for the future. And in the 1960’s this penchant for ideologies entered the sporting world, with the rise of “Poulidorism”, founded on the shoulders of its often-hapless hero, Raymond Poulidor.
Raised in the rural hills of the Limousin region of central France, Poulidor captured the heart of France in his eternal dual with the legendary Jacques Anquetil. “Master Jacques,” embodied the elegance of a modern champion. And while he too came from the country, he was the favorite of the urban elite. A stylish dresser, he embodied the Parisian cool, even though he lived far removed in a country manor near Rouen. And his affection for fast living drew comparisons to James Dean, which only grew as stories circulated of his nocturnal debaucheries, ones that at times included racing his sports car into Paris with headlights extinguished.
But while “Anquetilistes” existed, they did so in a small minority compared to the ever-growing populism of the “Poulidoristes.”
Anquetil was on his path to becoming the Tour’s first five-time winner when he crossed paths with Poulidor in 1962. By far his most stubborn challenger, Poulidor finished third to Anquetil in 1962 and second in 1964. And their lockstep battle up the Puy-de-Dôme volacano that year is remembered as one of the great duals in the sport.
On paper, Poulidor was the superior climber, while Anquetil had the upper hand in the long time trials common in that era. But Anquetil also possessed a cool calculation that often seemed to wreak havoc on Poulidor’s sense of spontaneity. And often, it was not so much the fact that Poulidor lost, but the spectacular manner in which did so.
Confronted with Anquetil’s classicism, Poulidor was a portrait of human tragedy. Never was this more evident than in Poulidor’s devastating defeat in 1964, a Tour de France that he lost not on the pitches of the Puy-de-Dôme, but on edge of the Pyrénées Mountains.
After a rest day in Andorra, the race crossed over some final climbs before descending towards Toulouse. Anquetil, suffering the excesses of a rest-day cook out, unraveled over the opening climbs, losing nearly five minutes. But at the end of the day, it was Poulidor that lost time. Botching a routine wheel change, Poulidor would lose two minutes 36 seconds on his rivals. When the Tour returned to Paris, he would finish 55 seconds behind Anquetil.
“The 1964 Tour was a masterpiece of misfortune,” writes French cycling historian Olivier Dazat in his book Seigneurs et Forçats du Vélo, when recalling Poulidor’s many mishaps that year. “He crashed in the first stage, sprinted a lap too early at the finish on the track in Monaco, flatted when he had Anquetil on the ropes in the time trial at Hyères, not to mention his extravagant stage with the Envalira (i.e. the Envalira Pass, one of the climbs on the stage from Andorra to Toulouse).”
But near-miss podium performances did not stop with Anquetil, nor did his misfortune. He finished second behind Italian Felice Gimondi in 1965, third behind Frenchman Lucien Aimar in 1966 and third behind Eddy Merckx in 1969 and 1972, before finishing runner-up to “The Cannibal” in Merckx’s fifth Tour victory in 1974. Seeming tireless, he then managed a third-place performance in 1976, 14 years after stepping on the Tour podium for the first time in 1962. Such longevity was only surpassed by Italian Gino Bartali, who managed to win the Tour de France before and after WWII, in 1938 and 1948.
For Poulidor’s numerous near misses he earned the moniker “Eternal Second,” and still today, á la Poulidor, refers to those riders that often finish second.
Poulidor’s mishaps continued too. Riding the race of his life in 1968, he tangled with a official race moto. Crashing heavily on the stage from Font-Romeau to Albi, he was surprised to see the lead group accelerating away. Bloodied, he led a courageous chase in vain, but his Tour was essentially over. At the finish, he seemed more injured morally than physically, complaining, “There is one thing I will never understand; how on can attack a rider that is seriously injured.”
But Poulidor, it seems, was less revered in the peloton than he was in public, as many considered him to be far too individualistic in this sport that is competed in teams.
Yet despite his many setbacks, Poulidor remains one of France’s most adored champions. And his love for the Tour has not dwindled over the years, and he has covered all of them save one.
Since the mid-1980’s Poulidor has been the spokesperson for the LCL Bank. And it comes with obvious irony that the rider who never wore the yellow jersey himself now represents the title sponsor of the yellow jersey. Day in and day out, Poulidor can be seen in the VIP village of the day’s start village in his yellow polo shirt signing autographs, as he recounts stories of Tours gone by. “I’ve worn the yellow more days than Eddy Merckx,” he likes to joke.
Indeed, for some like Poulidor, enduring appears more important than winning.
Happy birthday Raymond!